Computer-Assisted Career Counseling

Computer-assisted career counseling is the use of computers in educational and career guidance. When faced with the prospect of having to make an important educational or career decision, many individuals look for career or educational information and professional guidance. Individuals making educational decisions might access college brochures and catalogs or might request application and financial aid materials. Alternatively, individuals considering a possible career path might access information about the tasks involved in a job or might research the employment outlook for a particular occupation. Furthermore, some individuals seek the guidance of trained career counselors and psychologists as they grapple with making their decision. More and more, individuals are turning to their computers and the Internet for both information and guidance. A recent report, for example, suggests that almost half of all U.S. Internet users have turned to the Web when making important educational and career decisions.

The use of computers in educational and career guidance has a long history. In the 1960s the U.S. Department of Labor funded a project to develop a computer program that could provide users with up-to-date data on employment and educational opportunities. Early computer-assisted career guidance (CACG) programs were available in the 1970s and included automated career assessments; searchable databases of colleges, majors, and occupations; and guidance-related information to promote action planning and decision making. The widespread proliferation and availability of Internet technologies has radically changed the landscape of computer-assisted career counseling. Today, computer-assisted career counseling takes four primary forms: computerized career assessment, electronic sources of career and educational information, comprehensive CACG systems, and online career counseling.

Computerized Career Assessment

In an effort to help clients understand their educational and career interests, skills, and values, career counselors and psychologists will often administer one or more career assessment inventories. Results from these inventories can be used to help clients identify career paths, confirm existing choices, or narrow the number of career alternatives considered. Several benefits can be realized when administering career assessment via computer. Traditional paper and pencil inventories require that all items be administered in a fixed order. Computers can administer items dynamically based on individuals’ responses (referred to as computer adaptive testing or CAT). Computers can also be programmed to provide a reliable interpretation of an individual’s inventory results. When linked with other computer career assessment results, clients can be provided with interpretations and recommendations based on the integrated findings from multiple inventories. Finally, assessment interpretations themselves may be dynamic and interactive, requiring input from users or linking results and interpretations to sources of educational and occupational information.

Today, most computerized career assessment inventories are delivered via the Internet. Professionals and consumers should exercise caution when selecting online career inventories as many Internet-delivered inventories are of questionable origin. Inventories distributed by reputable testing companies or independently developed inventories that are supported by published research are preferred. Professionals should review the psychometric properties of any instrument prior to using it in practice. Three of the most widely administered online career interest inventories are the Strong Interest Inventory, the Self-Directed Search, and the Kuder Interest Inventory and Career Planning System. Other widely administered interest inventories include the UNIACT and the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) Interest Profiler, which are embedded with comprehensive computer guidance systems. In addition to interest inventories, work values and skill confidence inventories can also be found online.

Online Source of Education and Career Information

The use of computers to provide education and career information was first realized by the Department of Labor in the 1960s. Today, universities, private business, government agencies, and private citizens are free to publish information on the Internet. When compared to traditional printing methods, the Internet offers several benefits. Information can be updated on a regular basis and published almost immediately. Electronically delivered material can be quickly indexed and cross-referenced and text-based materials can be easily searched by end users. When the information is maintained in a relational database, it can be searched using preprogrammed compound searches. For example, a user can request a listing of all occupations that have starting salaries averaging greater than $50,000, require a bachelor’s degree or less, provide opportunities to supervise others, and are projected to be in high demand in coming years.

Several excellent college search sites are currently available free of charge. Both ACT, Inc., and the College Board provide an interface that permits searching for colleges by geographic location, admissions selectivity, tuition costs, and a host of other criteria. Resulting lists are linked directly to the college’s homepage.

The most comprehensive source of free occupational information is the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*NET. The O*NET is a comprehensive system of products, databases, and services designed to organize, describe, distribute, and collect information on occupations and the workforce. The O*NET database is in the public domain and can thus be freely downloaded and distributed. The O*NET online permits searching of the O*NET database using several criteria (e.g., interests, values, job family, employment growth). Several CACG systems make use of the O*NET database in delivering occupational information to their subscribers. The Department of Labor continues to maintain the Occupational Outlook Handbook, which served for many years as the primary governmental source of occupational information.

While the Internet has revolutionized the way education and career information is distributed, it has also caused some concern among career counseling professionals. Of particular concern is the overall quality and accuracy of career and educational information provided on the Web. Several professional organizations have established guidelines and standards for providing online career information. For example, the National Career Development Association has established guidelines that can be used by practitioners who wish to use the Internet to provide career information and planning services. Similarly, the Association of Computer-Based Systems for Career Information has established a set of standards to help guide career guidance program developers in building the highest quality career information services. Counselors and career professionals are urged to familiarize themselves with guidelines for evaluating the accuracy and currency of Internet delivered career and educational information.

The availability of accurate educational and career information may be more important than was previously thought. Results from a recent meta-analysis suggest that some elements of career counseling are more important than others. These authors suggest that providing clients with opportunities to access information about the world of work might be among the most potent predictors of positive outcomes among clients who are making initial career decisions.

Computer-Assisted Career Guidance Systems

CACG system is a term used to describe a computer application that combines career assessment, career information, and career guidance into one integrated system. CACG systems have been available since the 1970s and have evolved to take advantage of new computer technologies (e.g., personal computer, Internet). A growing number of CACG systems are available and most today are sold as subscription services delivered through the Internet.

CACG systems are unique in that they combine the advantages of providing online assessment; searchable databases of schools, college majors, and occupations; and other guidance and exploration experiences with the additional advantages that come from combining these features into one integrated system. In these systems, users typically receive their career interest assessment results in a format that permits immediate exploration of career alternatives. In the DISCOVER program, for example, individuals’ interests are compared to the characteristics of occupational environments and users are provided with possible career areas to explore (ordered from highest to lowest) based on their interests. Selecting a career area provides the individual with a list of occupations within that group and users can subsequently research occupational titles to learn about job tasks, educational requirements, employment outlook, or salary. Similar crosswalks are often created between values and skills assessments and occupational characteristics. Furthermore, CACG systems often provide information related to college majors and postsecondary schools in relational databases. These elements may also be searched using standard compound search routines.

CACG systems offer several other advantages. Because CACG systems are so costly to produce and distribute, they are generally produced by established for-profit and not-for-profit companies. As such, one can assume a level of quality assurance and professional review that may not be present with some stand-alone Web sites. Many CACG systems also permit some level of site customization. For example, site administrators may customize log-in banners, create unique surveys that appear within the program, or construct site specific data elements (e.g., high school coursework planner that shows site specific course names and numbers). Several CACG systems are currently in widespread use including DISCOVER, SIGI PLUS, and Choices.

There is a growing body of research suggesting that CACG systems are effective at promoting career development and decision making. Several recent meta-analyses show that CACG is effective, though effect sizes appear to be larger when computer-assisted guidance is combined with counselor-assisted guidance. Counselors or psychologists wishing to use CACG systems in their practice are urged to consider ways in which CACG systems can supplement their one-on-one or group-based career interventions.

Online Career Counseling

The computer and the Internet are expanding the ways in which clients and counselors are engaging in career counseling. The expansion of career counseling to the Internet is not surprising; counselors have a history of incorporating technology and distance communication  (e.g., telephone) into their practice. New modes of service delivery include e-mail, online chat, videoconferencing, voice over IP (Internet phone), and Weblogs. While there are endless possibilities for the provision of career counseling services through distance communication technologies, many risks and challenges accompany these new delivery platforms.

Online career counseling is particularly exciting as it may create the opportunity for geographically isolated or homebound individuals (due to mental illness or physical disability) to access services that would otherwise not be available. Individuals who traditionally have not sought counseling, those who are more comfortable with the anonymity provided by the Internet, and those underserved or underrepresented populations may also be more likely to seek services. Online career counseling also presents substantial challenges and potential risks. There are a number of untested legal issues that arise in online career counseling, including practicing across state lines and the coverage of malpractice insurance. It is also possible that not all career concerns are appropriate for online counseling, and most graduate training programs are not preparing counselors to provide online services. Finally, access to technology, particularly high-speed Internet, will limit the ability of many to access career counseling services.

One important distinction in online career counseling is the difference between asynchronous and synchronous communication. E-mail and blogs represent asynchronous communications, where two individuals are not required to be present or online at the same time to communicate. Exchanges through e-mail or blogs allow individuals to compose, edit, review, and respond to messages at their convenience and to create great flexibility in the speed, timing, and frequency of response. Another potential benefit of this communication modality is that clients may derive therapeutic benefit through the act of writing itself. Challenges include maintaining the client’s confidentiality, the loss of nonverbal cues, and counselors clearly articulating the timing and frequency of their responses to clients.

Synchronous communication is characterized by real time interaction between client and counselor and includes online chat, videoconferencing, and voice over IP. Online chat is accomplished through messaging systems or Web pages and allows clients and counselors to communicate in real time through typing. Online chat allows the counselor to experience the timing of responses as well as immediately respond to clients’ content. Ethical concerns with this mode of interaction include the possibility of losing tone and emphases of verbal communication, misunderstandings due to not recognizing cultural differences, the security and storage of transcripts of sessions, and potential technology failure. Videoconferencing, which most closely approximates traditional face-to-face counseling, builds upon many of the above benefits and increases the likelihood that verbal and vocal cues will be conveyed during interaction. Access to a broadband Internet connection, expensive video equipment, as well as lighting difficulties and restricted field of vision are all limitations to career counseling through online videoconferencing. Finally, voice over IP is essentially the equivalent of telephone counseling, but may be done at much lower cost and allows participants to simultaneously view content such as assessment results or blog postings on the Internet.

The preliminary research examining the effectiveness and equivalency of online counseling is positive and suggests that e-mail, chat, and videoconferencing are appropriate modalities of career counseling services for some clients. For example, research has compared counseling offered through videoconferencing, speakerphone, or traditional face-to-face counseling and found equivalent and positive outcomes for clients in all three conditions. Findings such as this are encouraging first steps, while much more research remains to clearly identify the problems, clients, career interventions, and communication modalities that are appropriate for online career counseling.

Considerations for Counseling Professionals

Technological advances during the past 25 years have shaped the work of vocational psychologists and career counselors. Online counseling, Internet assessment, and comprehensive CACG programs are now common aspects of many professionals practice. Professionals are encouraged to embrace these and emerging technologies in their practice but to do so in a way that ensures that technology is applied in helpful and responsible ways.


  1. Brown, S. D., & Ryan Krane, N. E. (2000). Four (or five) sessions and a cloud of dust: Old assumptions and new observations about career counseling. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Handbook of counseling psychology (3rd ed., pp. 740-766). New York: Wiley.
  2. Gore, P. A., Jr., & Hitch, J. L. (2005). Occupational classification and sources of occupational information. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work (pp. 382-113). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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